The latest in a line of five-star properties to open in the capital, the Corinthia hotel will have to fight for recognition among London's elite. But despite the issue of Libyan ownership, Janet Harmer discovers an ambitious aim to be considered one of London's leading hotels
With the launch of more than 1,000 bedrooms on to London's luxury hotel scene so far this year, every new opening is a major challenge. But the opening of the five-star, 294-bedroom Corinthia Hotel London has been more challenging than most.
When the UK Government and European Union started to impose sanctions on Libya as a result of the political unrest in the country, there was concern that the opening of the Corinthia, which is part-Libyan-owned, might be delayed indefinitely. However, once it was clear that the sanctions would not impact trading of the property, the hotel began welcoming guests at the end of April.
The Corinthia's general manager, Matthew Dixon, is certain that the hotel offers enough of a point of difference to ensure the hotel outshines its many rivals.
"We are in a fantastic location, with views over the River Thames and just five minutes from Downing Street," he says. "And we offer our guests so much space in their bedrooms. Over 120 rooms are in excess of 45sq m, which is something that has never been seen before in London."
Dixon - who is Savoy-trained and worked for Mandarin Oriental and Rocco Forte Hotels before taking on his most recent position as general manager of the Grove, Chandler's Cross, Hertfordshire - also highlights the attention to detail that has been incorporated throughout the hotel, including the 251 bedrooms and 43 suites.
Then there is the free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel (with enough bandwidth to allow for fast and user-friendly internet access); the largest hotel spa in London, situated over four floors and with 17 treatment rooms; and the first hotel store for Harrods.
It is quite clear that no expense has been spared on the renovation of the one-time Ministry of Defence building between Northumberland Avenue and Whitehall Place, which originally opened as the Metropole hotel in the 1880s.
At a cost of £300m, the intention was to provide a world-class luxury hotel in the grandest sense, but with a modern outlook and contemporary facilities. It regards its competitor set as London's highest-calibre hotels, including the Savoy, the Dorchester and the Ritz.
"London is an international gateway city and a major centre for fashion, media, creative industries and finance," says Dixon. "Following the financial crisis of 2008, it was the top section of London's five-star hotels that quickly bounced back. There now may be more five-star hotels than ever before, but we believe that the capital can support the new openings - including the Corinthia."
Situated at the heart of the hotel, the Lobby Lounge is the meeting point for guests and somewhere to enjoy afternoon tea, created by award-winning pastry chef Claire Clark, or an evening cocktail.
The soaring dome in the centre is adorned with a full moon chandelier designed by Chafik Gasmi of Paris and produced by the French crystal manufacturer, Baccarat. Composed of 1,101 crystal baubles in three varying sizes, it weighs two tonnes, is 4.15m wide and includes Baccarat's signature single red crystal.
The Lobby Lounge opens out on to an inner maple-lined crescent-shaped courtyard. Food and drinks are served here when the weather permits.
Massimo Restaurant & Oyster Bar
Designing the 150-seat Massimo restaurant - overseen by flamboyant chef-patron Massimo Riccioli - provided a major challenge for the David Collins Studio (DCS). The intention was to marry together Riccioli's roots in Rome, where he continues to operate the La Rosetta restaurant, with the London location and the Corinthia spirit.
"To create a space which reflects the personality of all these elements has resulted in a warm, intimate, flattering and fun room," says Simon Rawlings, creative director at David Collins Studio.
The dramatic striped colonnade elegantly frames the room and focuses attention on the oyster and Champagne bar. Friezes are gleaned from Rome, while the lighting is inspired by Victorian architectural fins, glass-blown lobster pots, and lunettes.
A palette of deep blue-soaked timbers contrasts with flashes of sharp green and luxurious tans, while pewter, nickel and brass shimmer against the hand-cut mosaics. The overall design is intended to complement Riccioli's food, which focuses on the freshest seafood and includes a range of antipasti, risotto and pasta.
Dishes include grilled octopus and avocado with aïoli (£14), turbot with cherry tomatoes, red chilli pepper, garlic, potatoes, lemon and clams (£30) and mixed berry salad with Muscat reduction (£8).
A special feature of the restaurant is the private dining room for up to 20 guests. Here Riccioli will take centre stage to cook a menu in the state-of-the-art kitchen within the room itself.
Celebrating the very best of British artisan produce, the 150-seat Northall restaurant serves simple, classic dishes. "We are really letting the fantastic ingredients speak for themselves," says Garry Hollihead, who heads a brigade of 35 and looks after all aspects of the hotel's food and beverage - including the Northall, Lobby Lounge, Bassoon, banqueting and room service - except for Massimo.
The menu highlights all the restaurant's regional suppliers, such as Lake District Farm in Cumbria for meat, Matthew Stevens of Cornwall for fish, and Secretts Farm, Surrey, for vegetables. Dishes include five different cuts of grilled Cumbrian shorthorn beef (£28-£32), fillet of roast pollock with salt and pepper squid, sauce rouille (£24) and warm raspberry and almond Bakewell with vanilla ice-cream (£8).
A novel concept is the high tea, served between 5.30pm and 7pm, which includes mustard scones, Middle White pork sausages, savoury tarts and a selection of cakes.
Using music as its inspiration, Bassoon - the art deco destination bar - features subtle layers of melodic references in its furniture, walls and ceiling. A 7m-long piano forms the bar top, sound waves appear on the ceiling and jazz-inspired art by William H Johnson hangs on the walls. "We have created something unique, comfortable and sexy with a hint of glamour," says Rawlings.
Textured green shagreen walls, rosewood and black piano lacquers provide the backdrop, while bold ochre, rich chocolate and warm grey tones adorn the furniture, creating a space of comfortable intimacy. Classic and bespoke cocktails are served, while live piano music and an open fire provides a warm atmosphere.
Accommodating up to 180 guests, the Ballroom is the centrepiece of the Corinthia's eight banqueting spaces. It measures 128sq m and has been fully restored to retain its original Victorian columns and coving. By linking with the adjoining Court Room, which accommodates a further 90, it has access to the hotel's inner courtyard.
In the bedrooms and suites, the aim of GA Design International was to create a residential feel based on grand English homes, but with a subtle contemporary interpretation. Oak timbers, used throughout to line the edges of all the rooms, are combined with leathers, warm limestones and silks to give a warm ambience. In the bathrooms, polished plasters and dramatic Calacatta marble, individually sourced by GA Design at the quarry, are used.
The original flow of the guest corridors has been maintained where possible, while two original bedrooms from the Metropole days have been combined into one very spacious standard executive room.
All rooms feature Loewe LED TVs and Nespresso coffee machines. The 36 suites include seven signature suites, of which the two-bedroom Royal Suite is claimed to be the largest in London. Situated over two floors, it incorporates a terrace with a fire pit overlooking the River Thames, a gym and spa treatment room.
To provide flexibility and convenience, check-in and checkout can be at any time of the day or night. The hotel aims to have a guest's room available, whatever the hour.
The opening of the Corinthia Hotel London marks the first foray into the UK by Corinthia Hotels, which is owned by International Hotel Investments (IHI), a publicly listed Maltese holding company.
About one-third of IHI is owned by the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company (LAFICO), which is subject to the sanctions imposed by the UK Government and the European Union as a result of the political unrest in the country. This does not impact on the operation of the hotel, but LAFICO is unable to sell its assets in IHI or draw any dividends or profits from its investment.
The rest of the ownership of IHI is made up of the 35% stake held by the Maltese Pisani family, which founded Corinthia Hotels in the 1960s, 22% by Istithmar World of Dubai and 8% by individual Maltese shareholders.
Today, Corinthia Hotels has properties in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Libya, Malta, Portugal and Russia, as well as London. They are all managed by CHI Hotels & Resorts, which also develops and operates two other hotel brands in Europe, Africa and the Middle East - Wyndham and Ramada Plaza.
Chief executive and managing director of CHI Hotels & Resorts is Tony Potter, who was chief executive at Millennium & Copthorne until 2006.
Corinthia Hotel London
General manager Matthew Dixon
Executive chef Garry Hollihead
Design GA Design International, and David Collins Studio for Massimo and Bassoon
Food and beverage Garry Hollihead oversees the Northall, Lobby Lounge, Bassoon bar, room service, the Spa lounge and banqueting in the eight rooms including the 180-seat ballroom. Massimo Restaurant and Oyster Bar is headed by Italian chef-patron Massimo Riccioli
Other facilities ESPA Life (3,300sq m space with swimming pool, 17 treatment rooms and gym); Daniel Galvin hair salon with VIP movie makeover room; Harrods store
Rates from £450 to £15,000 for the 470sq m Royal Suite
Address Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2BD
Tel 020 7930 8181